Mayor of Liverpool City Region Steve Rotheram and Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham have both branded Network Rail as “not fit for purpose” following the region’s railway chaos over the last month.
Speaking at Place North West’s Northern Transport Summit, the mayors’ comments also follow Transport Secretary Chris Grayling’s decision to drop out of making a keynote speech at the event to instead vote for the expansion of Heathrow.
Grayling was accused by unions and MPs of “chickening out” of defending the Government’s record on the North’s railways, and both Rotheram and Burnham said the region’s rail services were “on the cusp of a complete crisis”.
Rotheram branded Network Rail, which has been handling delayed electrification works and track improvements between Blackpool, Preston, and Manchester, as “no longer fit for purpose” and criticised the organisation’s “opaque and unaccountable structure”.
The delivery of railway improvements and timetable changes was “beyond a joke”, he argued, and added: “If this was happening in London it would’ve been fixed by now”.
The region has been hit with widespread delays and cancellations of railway services over the past month since a new timetable was introduced by operator Northern in May. Electric trains were originally supposed to replace diesel services the same month, but delays to electrification work being carried out by Network Rail mean that these will only be introduced later in the year.
“Northern, the Department for Transport, and Network Rail need to take sustained and proactive action to restore services, and ensure that the same level of chaos won’t be repeated when further timetable changes come into force later this year,” said Rotheram.
Burnham agreed with Rotheram’s comments, and criticised Network Rail for having “no early warning system”.
“You can’t allow for projects to go as wrong as they did, without having the ability to stop the chaos,” he said. “Let Transport for the North oversee the infrastructure plans for the North of England, and let Network Rail be held to account by TfN.”
Burnham was also critical of the Government’s approach to an HS2 hub at Piccadilly Station in Manchester with the city facing a “sub-optimal” solution to a new station for high-speed rail.
He argued the Government’s preferred option for a surface-level station would be the wrong approach, and questioned why Manchester was being asked to find a large chunk of the project’s funding locally when other station works, including at London Euston and in Birmingham were fully funded.
A surface-level station, he said, “away some of the most prime real estate in the whole of the North”, and added: “It would mean any East-West service would be a turnback service – that’s not a 21st century rail system, and why should we accept second best?”
Protestors from the RMT union also gathered outside the event following Grayling’s decision to pull out, and the union’s general secretary Mick Cash said the Transport Secretary was “running scared”. “He’s scared of the passengers he’s hung out to dry and he’s scared of the staff whose safety-critical jobs his franchise shambles have left facing the axe,” said Cash.
“Chris Grayling may have chickened out of meeting RMT members and their supporters today but I’ve got a message for him – you can run but you can’t hide.”
Responding to the Mayors’ comments, Martin Frobisher, managing director for Network Rail’s London North Western route, said: “Our purpose is to provide excellent service for the communities we serve. We constantly strive to do this better.
“That is why we have invited our customers and industry partners to feed into our plans for the five years to 2024.
“Network Rail is listening and eager to improve the way we work together with industry partners, including Mayors Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram.”
Further coverage of Place North West’s Northern Transport Summit will be published throughout the week